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Coalition derails Federal ICAC on technicality

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PM Morrison commented on the NSW ICAC in Parliament, calling it a "kangaroo court" (Image by Dan Jensen)

The Morrison Government recently managed to scuttle debate of Helen Haines' proposed bill for forming a Federal ICAC, by way of a technicality, writes Ross Jones.

THE PROSPECT of a Federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) terrifies Scott Morrison. What skeletons might tumble out is anyone's guess.

On Thursday afternoon in Parliament, the prime minister was reduced to a cartoon-spitting monster at the very thought of such a thing. But that little outburst came near the end of a long and trying day at the coalface of democracy.

It started in the morning when the independent member for Indi Dr Helen Haines rose to propose the House of Representatives move to suspend standing orders – that is, gloves off – and debate her proposed bill for the formation of a Federal ICAC — a proposal which has been widely circulated and debated since October 2020 when Haines first introduced her bill to the House.

At the time, The Australia Institute said:

'The National Integrity Committee welcomes the tabling in the Senate today by Senator Rex Patrick of Helen Haines’ Australian Federal Integrity Commission Bill to establish a Federal Integrity Commission.'

This is the last thing the Coalition needed — a discussion about corruption just as the parliamentary year wraps up.

When Tasmanian Liberal MP Bridget Archer stood up and announced she supported Haines' proposal and intended to cross the floor on the matter, you could feel the Coalition's anguish as dreams of controlling the media cycle – and maybe Government – began slipping away.

Few things outdo a defector on the evening news. But an even worse possibility presented itself.

Since MP Craig Kelly's defection to the Dark Prince of Townsville, the Government has been denied a majority, so that if Labor and the independents ever teamed up it would be a split decision.

On Thursday 25 November the independents teamed up:

'The motion was supported by the Opposition, Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent MPs Craig Kelly, Bob Katter, Andrew Wilkie, Zali Steggall and Rebekha Sharkie.'

Yes, even Craig.

The situation could only get worse if a backbencher decided to change sides. Which Bridget Archer did — a hero to many, a traitor to others.

Things threatened to go seriously pear-shaped when, as if by a miracle, the torpor of our elected representatives saved the day.

The low turnout of representatives was apparently due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the simple fact is they were not in the House at crunch time. Of the 151 House members, only 99 were present when Haines made her move and proposed the suspension of standing orders and a debate of her bill.

Then confusion reigned.

Defying grammatical logic, trainee Speaker Andrew Wallace told the House:

“The question is that the motion be disagreed to.”

And off they went for a division.

The result was 66 Noes and 63 Ayes. That meant the majority did not disagree with Haine's proposal. In other words, the majority agreed.

This would not do.

Dutton stuck his oar in:

That is an incorrect interpretation — I'll put it politely. I'm sure there's at least some shred of genuineness to it, but the reality is that it is within your prerogative, Mr Speaker. I know that there's advice from the Clerk, but I put it to you that it's within your prerogative under the standing orders to clarify the situation and to, in my respectful suggestion to you, adhere to that practice which would see a statement along the lines that I outlined earlier.

Bob Katter said:

“Clearly a lot of us are very confused. I'm one of the dumber ones, so I'm really at a loss.”

Wallace had another go:

“The question is that the motion for the suspension of standing orders be agreed to.”

This time it was clear: 66 Ayes, 64 Noes. (According to Hansard. I have no idea where the extra vote came from — a Coalition member entering the chamber probably.)

The Speaker announced:

“The question now is that the motion be agreed to.”

Uh oh.

It was, believe it or not, Kevin Andrews who saved the day when he told the Speaker:

“I submit to you that the question we've just voted on is the question which was before the House. It didn't have an absolute majority and therefore it fails.”

An absolute majority is 76.

Dutton came in behind him:

“The vote required an absolute majority, which was not achieved. The normal practice in this House, as I understand it, is for you to declare the vote as you have, Mr Speaker, but to note at that point that, given an absolute majority had not been achieved, the motion moved by the honourable member does not carry.”

Wallace went along with it. Inattendance had saved the day. Then the drugs kicked in.

As the Guardian put it:

'Thursday morning ebbed and the combatants rolled into question time. Naturally, Labor was minutely interested in the whereabouts of Morrison’s long-promised integrity commission. The Prime Minister, stroking across the rip of a terrible week, roared like a caged beast. Hellfire and fury rained down.'

An accurate description.

Hansard records the PM in Question Time as saying:

... those opposite want to support the sort of show we've seen in New South Wales, which has seen the most shameful attacks on the former Premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian. The people of New South Wales know that what was done to Gladys Berejiklian was an absolute disgrace. I'm not going to allow that sort of a process, which seeks to publicly humiliate people on matters that have nothing to do with the issues which go before such a commission, to see those powers abused and to traduce the integrity of people like Gladys Berejiklian.

He then said:

"The Australian people know that the former Premier of New South Wales was done over by a bad process and an abuse of process. I'm not going to have a kangaroo court taken into this parliament."

The PM went further:

"These matters should be looking at criminal conduct, not who your boyfriend is. That's what it should be. These things should be looking at criminal conduct. Those opposite know all about criminal conduct, because too many of their colleagues in the New South Wales parliament have ended up in prison. Criminal conduct is what this should look at, not chasing down peoples' love lives."

These absurd arguments are now forever recorded in Hansard, but the dry record does not do the PM's performance justice.

Senior Counsel Geoffrey Watson – the former counsel assisting NSW ICAC and the man who brought you Eddie Obeid's undoing – told ABC Radio he'd watched Morrison's performance.

Said Watson:

“I watched it. This is Parliament, he’s the Prime Minister of Australia. I saw him, he was standing there, he was red-faced, he was shouting, he was waving his arms around. This is a serious issue in which a lot of Australians want a proper debate. He was behaving more like a man in a pub angry because his footy team was losing.”

Sounds like a trip to Maccas might be on the cards.

Investigations editor Ross Jones is a licensed private enquiry agent and the author of 'Ashbygate: The Plot to Destroy Australia's Speaker'. You can follow Ross on Twitter @RPZJones.

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